It was obvious from when I ordered this book that it would not be your average mystery: young Jewish (half Irish) man arrives from joblessness in London to a small town in Ireland – Tumdrum – in the expectation of taking up a post as the new town librarian. After a hellish trip, which turns out to be fairly typical of his luck, he discovers that funding has been cut, the library will be sold and razed, and his new job is to be driving the mobile library replacing the brick and mortar stationary library. Which is going to be a problem: Israel can drive, but not well, and not necessarily a bus.
This isn’t so much a mystery, as billed, as it is a fish-out-of-water – or fish among fowl – story. The mystery is not the sort usually featured in adult books of the genre, but more of a Nancy Drew (or Hardy Boys) (or Scooby Doo) type: in other words, no one is murdered. I would actually be a lot more comfortable calling this a cozy mystery than most stories involving murder … but it’s not cozy. The setting, the characters, the tone of the writing: not cozy. And … not a mystery, very much. The aim of the book is to show us Israel Armstrong plopped down in a hostile-to-him environment, and how (whether) he copes. (Also, I figured it out about 150 pages before Israel did, and this isn’t as much fun as it ought to be.)
There is much to like in the book: Israel’s initial flailings at working his way into the job and the village are funny, and he is not entirely unsympathetic. No one who becomes a librarian in order to have access to free books can be entirely unsympathetic. There is a mystery in there, and it’s interesting. Some of the other characterizations are fun to read. And the description of the (doomed) library is heavenly.
But … Israel’s not very likeable. He’s a wimp, a bit hypochondriacal, has no social skills, doesn’t know how to say either no or yes (or please), and rubs very nearly everyone the wrong way almost instantly: he’s the perfect schlemiel. This should inspire sympathy, the schlemielness, but he’s also a shlimazel (thank you, Laverne & Shirley). If there seemed to be any hope that he might find his footing and improve I – and the townsfolk – might like him better, but there doesn’t. All he wants from the moment he hits Irish soil is to go home, and between that and the wall of events that prevents him from leaving he is ineffectually miserable – which I just didn’t find fun, or funny, to read.
Some of the other characters in the book are just over-the-top unpleasant, as well. I like Ted, a lot, though the first impression there was not good. But even he took against Israel, and it grows old when almost every single person feels, at best, contempt for the poor schlub. If you start out liking Israel, after a while you feel like you must be missing something, he’s so, otherwise, universally (except for Brownie) disliked. And the narrator gives every indication of having been to Ireland under duress and hating it, prompting him now to try to burst every Emerald Isle Auld Sod blarnified bubble the reader might harbor. Neither the place nor the populace is welcoming. And then there’s Linda … I keep feeling like her every scene should offend me, and I’m not sure if that’s a latent feminism or a horror of racial prejudice or something else entirely, or a combination … I think it’s partly the feeling that an impartial narrator shouldn’t dislike a character so much. The descriptions are so repetitively specific that she’s Asian, or fat (and constantly eating, and maybe that’s where the offensiveness lies), or both, that it’s not so much Linda I don’t like as the narrator. That’s not a comfortable situation for what presents itself as something of a cozy mystery. This wasn’t to my taste, and I doubt I’ll pursue the rest of the series.